Transfiguration | Last after Epiphany

Mark 9:2-9

2 Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and brought them to the top of a very high mountain where they were alone. He was transformed in front of them, 3 and his clothes were amazingly bright, brighter than if they had been bleached white. 4 Elijah and Moses appeared and were talking with Jesus. 5 Peter reacted to all of this by saying to Jesus, “Rabbi, it’s good that we’re here. Let’s make three shrines– one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He said this because he didn’t know how to respond, for the three of them were terrified.

7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice spoke from the cloud, “This is my Son, whom I dearly love. Listen to him!” 8 Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.

9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them not to tell anyone what they had seen until after the Human One had risen from the dead. (CEB)

Transfiguration

Human beings have a fascination with power. The entire comic book industry, and a lot of movies and books, are about people who have powers. Star Wars is about Jedi and Sith who have the power to manipulate the Force.

On the DC side of comics: Wonder Woman has super strength, she can fly, she has indestructible bracers and a lasso of truth. Vixen has her ancient Tantu Totem that lets her harness the powers of animal spirits. Batman has his wealth, his tech gadgets, and his fearlessness. The Legends of Tomorrow have a variety of skills, abilities, and cool technology. The Flash has his superspeed. Green Arrow has his fighting skills and perfect accuracy with the bow. Superman has his array of powers thanks to our yellow Sun. And Supergirl has everything Superman has, and I watched her beat him in a straight-up fight on the CW.

In the Marvel world of comics: Black Panther has his super senses, strength, speed, agility, stamina, and healing abilities, plus Wakanda’s advanced technology. The X-Men (and Women!) have all kinds of powers and abilities based on their x-gene mutations. Captain America has his serum-induced strength and self-healing. Iron Man has his wealth, tech, and an awesome suit full of weapons that lets him fly and make things explode. Spiderman has his web-slingers and spider abilities.

We can find worlds full of magical powers in books and movies: the Harry Potter series, the A Court of Thorns and Roses series, The Waterfire Saga, and The Lord of the Rings series. And when it comes to computer games, my favorite class is the Elementalist, which uses earth, water, air, and fire magic to blow bad people and monsters to pieces.

But our human fascination with power isn’t limited to fiction and imagination. Our president wants to spend a few million of our tax dollars to put on a grand military parade to show off our military might, as if we need to put it on display. He certainly wouldn’t be the first president or world leader to do so. Lots of modern nations do them. The Roman Empire liked their military parades, too. For some reason, leaders of nations like to flex their muscles and display their elegant tail feathers to show everyone else how big and tough they are.

Jesus had some pretty cool powers, too. He could heal people who were sick. He raised a few people from death. And this Transfiguration thing, that was God’s power on display for all the world to see, right? All of a sudden, everyone knew that Jesus had the power of God in the palm of his hand, and he was the new guy to be afraid of…

Except, that wasn’t how it went.

Jesus didn’t put his power on display the way nations and leaders of nations like to do. He only took three of his disciples with him as witnesses to the event. In fact, as Jesus, Peter, James, and John came down from the mountain, he told them not to tell anyone what they had seen until after he had risen from death.

When we put the Transfiguration in context with what Jesus had just taught his disciples in chapter 8, and with the rest of what happened in the Gospel of Mark, we see a completely different picture of power, and a different picture of purpose for those who would follow Jesus Christ. It’s chapter 8 where Jesus tells the crowds that any who want to come after him must take up their cross and follow him (c.f. Mark 8:34). While it’s never explained what cross-bearing looks like for the rest of us, it’s the story that follows and the example of Jesus that teaches us what it means to take up our cross and follow Jesus.

The Transfiguration becomes the first important lesson of cross-bearing. It shows us that power is not something we pursue or wield so much as something we expose. Jesus’ devotion to the reign of God on earth is what provoked the powers to make their oppressive, murderous response by killing Jesus. The powers of this world rule by fear, greed, and falsehood. They use violence, hatred, and despair to turn people against each other and distort everything we’re meant to be as human beings who are created in God’s image.

Jesus wasn’t the first prophet to die by exposing the corruption of earthly powers. He stands in a long line of prophets who were persecuted and murdered by the political and religious establishment for daring to speak the truth about their misuse of power and fraudulent, unethical operations.

Jesus came so that he could be the anointed-one who would be rejected and murdered by the corrupt powers that rule through fear, backhandedness, and violence. Several times throughout the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tells his disciples that he’ll be killed and raised from the dead (c.f. 8:31, 9:31, 10:33-34).

At the same time, the disciples had their minds set on earthly things that didn’t allow them to see God’s reign on earth as anything more than human powers, such as the restoration of Israel as an independent kingdom. You might recall that, when Jesus told the disciples that he would “suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the legal experts, and be killed, and then, after three days, rise from the dead” (Mark 8:31), Peter’s response was to take hold of Jesus firmly, as if Jesus were a child, to scold and “correct” him.

Peter couldn’t see beyond the things of earth, which is why Jesus turned and corrected Peter in front of the other disciples by saying, “Get behind me, Satan. You are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts” (Mark 8:33). The disciples were thinking about power, but in the same twisted way that we humans are so fascinated with it. They intended to make Jesus-the-Messiah into a hero of their nation, the savior of the earthly kingdom they desired. And, they would ride the coattails of their hero to fulfill their own this-worldly ambitions.

James and John even asked Jesus to let one of them sit at his right hand, and the other at his left, which angered the other disciples because the request got in the way of their ambitions. There could only be one right-hand-man, and one left-hand-man, but there were twelve disciples all vying for Jesus’ favor, and they acted and argued as rivals (c.f. Mark 10:35-45). Really, the other ten were mad that they didn’t have the boldness to ask that favor of Jesus before James and John did. They were thinking earthly things. Their minds and actions were stuck on a horizontal plane.

One scholar even suggested that, for Jesus’ first disciples, resurrection was more of a scandal than crucifixion. Death was something they could understand. Lives ended all the time. But resurrection? The glory of God? Mark’s Gospel makes it clear that that was downright scary stuff. Notice that every time the disciples are confronted with God’s glory—Jesus walking on the water (6:50), the Transfiguration (9:6), and Jesus’ resurrection appearance to the women at the tomb (16:8)—the word used to describe what the disciples felt is terror. This isn’t the kind of fear that a person can heroically overcome, but the kind of terror that incapacitates and turns the bravest among us into a useless blubbering heap.

These glimpses of glory remind us that there’s more to the story of Jesus than human ambition and earthly power. The fact that Jesus didn’t use that power to his own gain tells us that followers of Jesus and citizens of God’s kingdom should live and act differently from the world. In Philippians 2, Paul’s hymn says of Jesus: “Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings.” (Phil. 2:6-7a CEB). Paul also tells us to have the same mindset (c.f. Philippians 2:5).

That’s why Jesus ordered Peter, James, and John not to talk about the Transfiguration they had witnessed until after Jesus had risen from the dead, until after he had exposed the corrupt earthly powers for what they were. Then, the disciples could talk about the display of power and glory they had seen at the Transfiguration. But even then, sharing what they had witnessed wasn’t a way for the disciples to seize earthly power or prestige. Instead, it encouraged the followers of Jesus to take up their cross and follow Christ, and live in a way that will inevitably provoke the powers against us by insisting on the values of Jesus.

Jesus came to usher in the kingdom of God on earth, and he told us that, if we want to come after him, we have to take up our cross and follow. Taking up our cross means we die to ourselves. We set aside our earthly ambition and desire for power and live for others as Jesus did. It also means that our love as Christian people is not a passive thing. We don’t get to keep our distance and love others from afar.

It’s almost hard to believe that earthly powers would act so violently against love, nonviolence, acts of mercy, and acceptance of those the world rejects. But the values of Jesus, which are the values of God’s kingdom, end up exposing the corruption earthly powers.

Nothing exposes the hatred and viciousness of earthly power like people working on behalf of refugees or undocumented immigrants and demanding that the world recognize them as human beings worthy of our love, compassion, and direct assistance. Nothing exposes the injustice of earthly power like someone working on behalf of people the world would happily sweep under the rug: the poor, incarcerated, homeless. Legality is defined by the powers, and Christians have long recognized that what is legal is not always what is right, just, loving, or good.

Jesus ate with sinners to show them and the establishment that he was their friend, that he accepted them, and that he loved them. Those actions exposed the fact that the establishment had rejected and ostracized people.

As a glimpse of God’s glory, the Transfiguration reminds us that God is bringing a new world into being. The ways and values of this new world stand in stark contrast to the ways and values of the earthly powers. If we want to follow Jesus, we have to set aside the games of domination and exploitation that earthly powers like to play. And, we have to set aside the violence, hatred, greed, and deception that such powers use to win those games.

The voice of God which came from the cloud told the disciples to listen to Jesus. Are we listening?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

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Everlasting God | 5th after Epiphany

Isaiah 40:21-31

21 Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard? Wasn’t it announced to you from the beginning? Haven’t you understood since the earth was founded? 22 God inhabits the earth’s horizon– its inhabitants are like locusts– stretches out the skies like a curtain and spreads it out like a tent for dwelling. 23 God makes dignitaries useless and the earth’s judges into nothing. 24 Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely is their shoot rooted in the earth when God breathes on them, and they dry up; the windstorm carries them off like straw. 25 So to whom will you compare me, and who is my equal? says the holy one.

26 Look up at the sky and consider: Who created these? The one who brings out their attendants one by one, summoning each of them by name. Because of God’s great strength and mighty power, not one is missing. 27 Why do you say, Jacob, and declare, Israel, “My way is hidden from the LORD my God ignores my predicament”? 28 Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth. He doesn’t grow tired or weary. His understanding is beyond human reach, 29 giving power to the tired and reviving the exhausted. 30 Youths will become tired and weary, young men will certainly stumble; 31 but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength; they will fly up on wings like eagles; they will run and not be tired; they will walk and not be weary. (CEB)

Everlasting God

You’ve probably heard this text before. This section of Isaiah 40 is commonly used at funerals. It’s depiction of God’s power over all things is meant to offer comfort to those of us who’ve lost a loved one. Its poetry beautifully balances God’s transcendence with God’s immanence—God’s powerful otherness and God’s intimate nearness. But it isn’t an easy text. While the imagery of God’s power and tirelessness can give hope to some, it can generate skepticism in those who either live in the midst of violence, poverty, hopelessness, or exploitation, or in those who witness such things. After all, if God is so powerful, why does God allow all this horrible stuff to happen? At the same time, if God is so loving and close to us, how can God allow all this horrible stuff to happen?

Those very questions were likely on the minds of the original hearers of Isaiah’s poem. Isaiah chapters 40-55 is called Second Isaiah because it was likely written in the 6th century B.C.E. toward the end of Babylonian control and the rise of the Persian Empire. The first 39 chapters mostly deal with 8th century life before the exile when Assyria was the power broker in the region. Those earlier chapters foreshadowed the exile to Babylon. These chapters, beginning with Isaiah 40, tell of the end of the power that carried Judah’s elite into exile over the course of at least three separate deportations.

Verse 27 gives us the thoughts of the people: My way is hidden from the LORD; my God ignores my predicament” (CEB). The people were in exile for fifty to sixty years, depending on when they had been deported. Their children and grandchildren grew up in Babylon. The people tried to maintain their Jewish identity, but it wasn’t always easy. They had suffered captivity for a long time and they probably wondered if God cared or, even if God did care, could God do anything about it? Was the God of Israel powerful enough to help?

Isaiah’s answer is a sweeping poem of monotheistic faith. There is only one God, Isaiah insists, and that is Israel’s God who made all of creation. The prophet begins with rhetorical questions that point to the beginnings of both creation and the human race. “Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard? Wasn’t it announced to you from the beginning? Haven’t you understood since the earth was founded?” (Isaiah 40:21 CEB).

These questions sound similar in tone to God’s questioning of Job, when the Lord said, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Tell me if you know. Who set its measurements? Surely you know. Who stretched a measuring tape on it? On what were its footings sunk; who laid its cornerstone, while the morning stars sang in unison and all the divine beings shouted? Who enclosed the Sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb, when I made the clouds its garment, the dense clouds its wrap, when I imposed my limit for it, put on a bar and doors and said, ‘You may come this far, no farther; here your proud waves stop?’” (Job 38:4-11 CEB).

The questions Isaiah asks act like a gentle reprimand for those captives who have forgotten who their God is. They’re for those whose skepticism or cynicism has grown to the point that they no longer trust that God cares about them or is able to act. These amnesiacs who’ve forgotten God’s identity and the skeptics who’ve dismissed the Lord’s power and care should have known! They had surely heard the stories of Israel’s past. God rescued the people from slavery in Egypt and set them in a new land. God established prophets, priests, judges, and kings to order the lives of the people. God had taken care of them in the past when they were no people, and the Lord built them into a community and a kingdom who were God’s people.

Isaiah reminds the captives that God inhabits earth’s horizon—God encompasses everything—the Lord is the one who stretched out the skies for us to live under. God is that big! God is that powerful! Everything belongs to the Lord who made everything! Isaiah reminds the people that they know this. They’ve heard the stories of their people.

Then again, maybe it was those very stories that made the people a little cynical. Maybe the Jewish captives had grown impatient and frustrated. After all, their ancestors had been slaves in Egypt for four-hundred years before God acted. Maybe they didn’t want to wait that long. Maybe they thought God had given up on their generation. Maybe they thought God wouldn’t do anything for the people who were alive now. What’s the point of staying faithful and standing firm in their beliefs about God if God won’t bother acting for another few hundred years? Sure, the day of liberation would be great for their progeny, but not so great for them. If God waited a long time, their bodies would already be in the ground in a foreign land. So, maybe we can understand why some of them wondered about the point of faithfulness.

Isaiah seems to suggest that the point is both God’s transcendence, immanence, and the people’s identity as God’s people.

If we were to examine the text closely as a piece of literature, we’d notice that all the verbs belong to the Lord, and everything else are objects of the Lord’s verbs. When the verbs are positive, they point to objects that are features of creation. When the verbs are negative, they point to objects that are nullified. Isaiah reminds the people that God is greater than the so-called powers among the nations. Princes and kings come and go, but the Lord outlasts them all. More than that, God has the power to make dignitaries useless and judges into nothing. They’re present for a short time, but God can unmake the most powerful king on earth in a breath.

With the Persian-Achaemenid King Cyrus threatening the power of the Babylonian Empire, it seemed as though God was about to bring the empire that had carried off God’s people to its knees. Isaiah offers hope to the exiles who may well have lost a good deal of it, if not all. Indeed, by chapter 45, the prophet identifies King Cyrus as the Lord’s messiah, not anyone among the Jews. The prophet insists that a reversal is coming.

The poetry of verses 21-24 echoes the power reversals of Hannah’s Song, which was the thanksgiving prayer of a once-barren woman who had been mercilessly mocked by the other wife of her husband who had many sons and daughters. After Hannah had weaned her son, Samuel, she presented him to the priest, Eli, to live as a nazirite to God. When she gave her son up, she prayed a song of victory and reversal:

“The bows of mighty warriors are shattered, but those who were stumbling now dress themselves in power! Those who were filled full now sell themselves for bread, but the ones who were starving are now fat from food! The woman who was barren has birthed seven children, but the mother with many sons has lost them all! The LORD! He brings death, gives life, takes down to the grave, and raises up! The LORD! He makes poor, gives wealth, brings low, but also lifts up high! God raises the poor from the dust, lifts up the needy from the garbage pile. God sits them with officials, gives them the seat of honor! The pillars of the earth belong to the LORD; he set the world on top of them!” (1 Sam. 2:4-8 CEB).

Isaiah insists the people should have known that God’s power overwhelms everything else. The monotheism of verses 25-26 brings God’s transcendence and immanence together. There is no comparison to the Holy One of Israel. God can bring out the whole host of heaven, yet God knows each one of them by name. God’s power makes God’s nearness possible.

So, when the people imagine that their way is hidden from the Lord, and that God is ignoring their predicament, Isaiah asks his questions again, “Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard?” (Isaiah 40:28a-b, CEB). And he reminds the exiles who their God is: a tireless creator whose work of creation is not a once-and-done deal. God refreshes and revives, lifts up and makes the flightless soar the skies.

Still, understanding God’s ways won’t likely happen in an instant. (Be wary of those who say otherwise). Whatever hardship we’re facing, it won’t likely be resolved instantaneously either. Finding the gumption to persist through hardship is tough when we’re relying on our own strength. It wears us out.

Isaiah essentially leaves us with an either-or. Either we’ll be tired, weary, and stumbling—yes, even the young who are so full of energy!—or we’ll wait for the Lord, who will renew our strength so that we can run without weariness, and walk without tiring.

The difference has to do with who we are and how we bear the trouble we face. If we turn away from the Lord in times of trouble, we aren’t going to last very long. The years in exile had caused some of the exiles to forget, and they were tired. Understandably so. They’d live in the hardship of captivity for decades. I’d probably get tired, too. But Isaiah reminds us that there’s another way: a way of reliance upon the God who made heaven and earth, and who knows each of us by name.

Hannah prayed for years and endured incessant ridicule before she finally got the child she wanted. But I think it was her faithfulness, her prayers, and her reliance upon God that saw her through those years of barrenness. Whatever exile we’re facing, whatever hardship in life, or trial of faith, we need to remember that God hasn’t left us alone. God is transcendent and powerful beyond imagination, but God is also small enough, close enough, near enough to know us, to love us, to feel each beat of our heart and shuddered breath, and to hear each prayer that falls from our lips. When we remember that the God of the universe is sitting right beside us, surrounding us, and filling us, that’s when we fly.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

A Prophet | 4th after Epiphany

Deuteronomy 18:15-20

15 The LORD your God will raise up a prophet like me from your community, from your fellow Israelites. He’s the one you must listen to. 16 That’s exactly what you requested from the LORD your God at Horeb, on the day of the assembly, when you said, “I can’t listen to the LORD my God’s voice anymore or look at this great fire any longer. I don’t want to die!” 17 The LORD said to me: What they’ve said is right. 18 I’ll raise up a prophet for them from among their fellow Israelites–one just like you. I’ll put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him. 19 I myself will holda ccountable anyone who doesn’t listen to my words, which that prophet will speak in my name. 20 However, any prophet who arrogantly speaks a word in my name that I haven’t commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods– that prophet must die. (CEB)

A Prophet

Our text today occurs in a section of Deuteronomy called the Torah of Moses where Moses authorizes a series of leadership roles: judges, king, priests, and prophets. These leadership roles are to guide Israel so that the people may maintain their peculiar identity and vocation as the people of God.

This is a continuation of Moses’ speaking to the people, telling them of God’s commandments, statutes, ordinances, and promises that the Lord himself had spoken to Moses on the mountain. In order to help the people remain faithful to the Lord, God promises to raise up for them a prophet like Moses who will speak the word and will of God to them.

This promise was to fulfill what the people of Israel had asked of God on the day of the assembly, when the people had gathered around the holy mountain to hear the voice of God speak to them the Ten Commandments. When they heard God’s voice, the people were afraid, and they believed that if they heard God’s voice again they would die. The voice of the Lord was too great, too powerful, for them to hear with their own ears. The sight of God’s glory in the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness was more than the people could endure. So, the elders of the people went to Moses and asked him to intercede on their behalf: they wanted him to go and hear the words of the Lord and then tell them what God had said them. If Moses would do this for them, the elders promised that the people would listen to Moses and do what he relayed to them as God’s word. (c.f. Deuteronomy 5:22-33).

It almost sounds like that trope in a movie where a group of people comes to a really scary part of the haunted woods, and they nudge the little guy and say, “You go first. If you die, we know it’s not safe.” And the little guy’s like, shrug “All right,” and marches right in.

God thought the people’s request was a good idea. God said to Moses, “What they’ve said is right. I’ll raise up a prophet for them from among their fellow Israelites– one just like you. I’ll put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him” (Deut. 18:17b-18 CEB).

God expected the people to listen to the words of the prophet and heed the prophet’s words as the words of God. Anyone who disobeyed the word of the prophet who spoke in the name of the Lord was guilty of disobeying the Lord, and God would hold that person accountable. And any prophet who spoke in the name of another god, or who put himself in the place of God by presuming to speak a word that the Lord had not commanded the prophet to speak, that prophet would pay the penalty of such arrogance with his life.

That’s why none of the prophets ever wanted the job when they were called to the role of prophet.

Throughout the history of Israel, God raised up prophets to speak God’s word and will to the people. Occasionally the prophets made predictions concerning the future but, by and large, prophets spoke out against the evils of immorality, idolatry, unfaithfulness, disobedience, unfair economics, injustice, exploitation of the poor, and bad politics. The prophets didn’t predict the future so much as offer if-then statements. If you keep doing this bad thing, then this is how things are going to go down. But if you turn away from that bad thing and do this good thing, then this is how things will go well for you. The prophets were less about predicting the future, and more about laying out the consequences of evil human activity for everyone to see and understand.

God was faithful in sending prophets to the people but, wouldn’t you know, the prophets were often met with resistance. It was dangerous to be a prophet in Israel. Prophets usually had very short lives because people didn’t often like what they had to say, especially those who were part of the establishment in those other three vocations: the judges, the kings, and the priests.

In a society like ours where we like true authority to rest with our own personal autonomy, it can seem odd to us that God called and authorized—and still calls and authorizes—certain persons for certain purposes. This holy authority runs against our modern cultural assumptions. People in our culture want to think that we are the authority. We like to believe that we’re in charge, that our way’s the right way.

The Israelites weren’t all that different. When a prophet spoke out against something they were doing, they often reacted like any one of us would: as though they were offended that some Bozo-the-prophet was trying to set them straight. Those in positions of power and authority had an especially difficult time accepting the words of prophets because prophets challenged their authority.

Sometimes people listened, but often enough they simply killed the prophet so that the word that the Lord wanted them to hear was extinguished. Yet, what they should have done was take some time to breathe, ponder on the prophet’s words, do a little self-examination, and honestly consider their own actions.

But no one likes it when someone points out our faults or tells us we’ve done something (or are doing something) contrary to the will of God. And, let’s be honest, every scandal that hits the clergy or leaders of any Christian church denomination erodes the authority of clergy and church leaders everywhere. Those scandals, and other matters, can cause us to wonder why God would give an assurance of holy authority to fallible human beings.

Yet, the holy authority of the prophets was one that counterbalanced the hereditary authority of the priests and kings, which could become inflexible, detached, and unresponsive to the actual needs of the people. It also served to counterbalance those times when the people, themselves, grew apathetic and got too comfortable with not caring for others. Because the office of the prophets wasn’t based on hereditary succession, it was an authority that could pop up in any person in any tribe at any time.

In the fullness of time, God did something different. Instead of sending another prophet to speak the word of God, God sent his Word, his only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, to speak to us directly. This time, God’s people would hear the word of God from God himself! God himself came into our world. Taking on flesh and becoming one of us, he lived with us as an example for every eye to see. He spoke the words of the Father in a unique way, because he himself is the Word of God incarnate. He taught with authority as no other prophet or scribe or Pharisee had done before because he himself was and is the authority. God raised up a prophet like Moses, and yet a greater prophet than Moses.

Jesus is the Light of the world, which enlightens every person. Those who are illumined by the light of Jesus walk according to the ways of God. They live in the light and are strengthened against the works of evil. They stay on the path of righteousness. They do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with the God who calls us out of darkness.

Jesus and his disciples went to the city of Capernaum in Galilee and entered the synagogue on the Sabbath day and taught. Mark tells us that the people were astounded at his teaching because he taught them as one having authority—like Moses himself. When a man with an unclean spirit entered the synagogue, the demon recognized Jesus’ true identity as the Holy One of God. Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit and cast it out of the man. The people in the synagogue were already impressed with Jesus’ teaching, but this casting out the demon episode was like making a half-court shot when the game was already won. It was icing on the cake. The people said, “What’s this? A new teaching with authority! He even commands unclean spirits and they obey him!” (Mark 1:27 CEB).

Still, many people didn’t like what Jesus taught, and like so many prophets before him, he was killed for speaking the word of God to the people. But as I said before, with Jesus, God has done something different. On the third day, Jesus was raised from the dead. Forty days later he ascended into heaven. And in the fullness of time our Lord will return to establish his kingdom forever.

God has raised up for us a prophet like Moses. Yet, Jesus of Nazareth is more than a prophet. He’s our advocate in the judgment, our high priest, our king, and he’s God’s Son. He has authority over all things: over unclean spirits, forgiveness of sins, setting certain people apart for certain tasks in life, and he has authority over us.

Jesus spoke out against the evils of immorality, idolatry, unfaithfulness, disobedience, unfair economics, injustice, and exploitation of the poor and marginalized. He called people to repent and turn instead to a righteous life of faithfulness, obedience, love, justice, and mercy. Before anyone realized he was the Messiah, people were amazed that he taught with authority.

While Moses liberated the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt, Jesus liberated the whole world from the power of sin and death. Jesus redeemed us on the cross and offered salvation to everyone. The world has been a mess since the moment Adam and Eve disobeyed God. The human race, even all of creation, needed a savior. God sent Jesus to make a way for us, to allow reconciliation with God to happen, because we needed it. We needed to hear that love casts out fear, that loving each other is how we love God and is the right way to live, that seeking justice for the oppressed and the poor is how we serve God, and that right living is more important than proper ritual.

In Jesus Christ, God has raised up for us a prophet like Moses to teach us how to live now and how to have life after we die. It’s up to us to heed the words of the prophet, to change our minds, hearts, and purpose, and to live in a way that points others to the kingdom of God.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

Followers | 3rd after Epiphany

Mark 1:14-20

14 After John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news, 15 saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!”

16 As Jesus passed alongside the Galilee Sea, he saw two brothers, Simon and Andrew, throwing fishing nets into the sea, for they were fishermen. 17 “Come, follow me,” he said, “and I’ll show you how to fish for people.” 18 Right away, they left their nets and followed him. 19 After going a little farther, he saw James and John, Zebedee’s sons, in their boat repairing the fishing nets. 20 At that very moment he called them. They followed him, leaving their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired workers. (CEB)

Followers

The words that mark an end to John the Baptist’s ministry and the beginning of the ministry of Jesus foreshadow what’s to come later in Mark’s Gospel. The words aren’t flowery, congratulatory, or even joyful. They give us pause. They’re ominous. “After John was arrested.” Jesus’ ministry began after John was arrested.

The next words should make us scrunch our eyebrows and leave us wondering if we heard them correctly. “Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news.” Jesus began his ministry in Galilee? It wasn’t really a center of anything. Aside from the Roman cities of Sepphoris and Tiberias, The Galilee was mostly small villages like Nazareth, Capernaum, Bethsaida, and Chorazin. The area wasn’t a seat religious or a political power.

In fact, Jesus mostly ignored the places of power and authority in Judea. We have no record of him ever stepping foot in Sepphoris, though it was only a few miles north of Nazareth. Sepphoris was known as the ornament of the Galielee and served as Herod Antipas’s capital until he built the city of Tiberias on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee around A.D. 20. There’s no record of him setting foot in Tiberias either. Instead, Jesus preached his message of God’s good news throughout those small towns and villages. Sometimes, he preached the good news along the way as he travelled from place to place.

Jesus’ message wasn’t about religious or political power. Jesus came to preach God’s good news. The prophet Isaiah described it this way: “The LORD God’s spirit is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim release for captives, and liberation for prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and a day of vindication for our God, to comfort all who mourn, to provide for Zion’s mourners, to give them a crown in place of ashes, oil of joy in place of mourning, a mantle of praise in place of discouragement” (Isaiah 61:1-3 CEB).

So Jesus preached to the poor, the brokenhearted, the captives and prisoners of empire, the mourners. If Jerusalem, where Jesus was rejected, was a portrait of religious authority and Roman political power, The Galilee region was a portrait of God’s kingdom. Jesus chose Capernaum as his home base. The only big thing it had going for it was that it sat at the crossing of a Roman road and smaller local roads. But a lot of towns did, too. There wasn’t anything particularly special about Capernaum or Galilee.

Then, we get to Jesus message, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” (Mark 1:15 CEB). Other translations render Jesus’ words as, “The time is fulfilled” (NRSV, RSV, KJV), which makes it sound like something has been accomplished, finished, completed, and done. But the story is just beginning. It’s not that history and circumstances were awaiting some kind of ripeness before Jesus could show up on the scene. It’s more the idea that the coming of Jesus brings the fullness of time with him. Time, itself, has come to a fullness of its meaning.

The entry of Jesus into the world brings a new era, a new age, a new time and reality. We’re living in a time-between-the-times, and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ will inaugurate a new time in which God’s kingdom reigns, and the values of that kingdom are lived.

What does Jesus mean by saying, “here comes God’s kingdom”? There’s some leeway on the meaning of the Greek word ἤγγικεν (engiken). It can mean has come near or has arrived. There’s obviously some difference between the two. When I turn onto Lincoln Avenue in Evansville, it might mean I’ve come near to my Grandmother’s house, but it doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve arrived. So, which nuance of ἤγγικεν (engiken) is meant here?

Oddly enough, both are true. Jesus made God’s kingdom present from the moment the Word became flesh at the incarnation. The kingdom of God has come near. It is here, now, as a present reality. The whole world is invited to live in that kingdom as followers of Jesus.

At the same time, the fullness of that kingdom is a future reality. It’s near, it’s here, but it’s not all the way here yet. It’s now, and not yet. The fullness of God’s kingdom will come with the return of Christ. It’s a reality the disciples were told to pray about, and it’s something we pray about every time we say, “Your kingdom come” in the Lord’s Prayer. The kingdom has come in Jesus Christ, but we’re still awaiting the final fulfillment of that kingdom.

Then, we’re told to repent and believe in God’s good news. That word, repent, is another one of those church words that we hear a lot, but sometimes our minds just gloss over the meaning. The Greek word means to change your mind or to change your purpose. But it’s not just a head thing, it includes a nuance of the heart. When we change our mind or our purpose, we have to come to grips with the fact that we might have been wrong beforehand. We might even feel bad, a little or a lot remorseful, about how we acted before we changed our mind or purpose.

On Thursday, I talked on the phone with a friend of mine who had a change of mind and heart over the past year. He’s a great guy. Every time we hang out, we’re laughing, and I mean borderline hysterics. He’s quick with a joke, and his sense of humor is sometimes so deadpan that it takes the rest of us a second to catch on. Then, we’re just in stitches. He’s also a person who had given up on God, the church, and Christians. When we talked on the phone, he told me that he’d been doing drugs and he drank too much. But, he realized that, because of these things, he wasn’t being a good husband or father. His marriage is rocky. He realized he couldn’t keep doing this stuff. So, he changed his mind and his purpose. He’s trying to get better. He’s doing rehab. He’s trying to be the husband and father he knows he should be.

That’s repentance. When you realize something’s not right, you change your mind, you change your heart, and you work your butt off at living life in a new direction.

The fact that God’s kingdom has come has consequences in the lives of those who receive and believe in the good news Jesus proclaims. We’re called to change our hearts and lives, and to trust in God’s good news. If we want to understand what the values of God’s kingdom look like, we look to Jesus. He loved those whom the religious authorities and other people rejected. He told the supposedly righteous religious authorities that prostitutes and tax collectors were entering the kingdom of God ahead of them. He loved and accepted everyone, and encouraged people to change their minds, their hearts, and live in a new direction.

If or when we mess up and turn back in a moment of weakness or despair, that invitation to repent—to change our mind, our purpose, our heart—is always there. Repenting and believing, believing and repenting: these are ongoing aspects of every Christian’s life. It’s exactly what played out in the lives of the disciples. In our text, we see four of them make immediate decisions to follow Jesus, but we also know that they lived the rest of their lives making mistakes and repenting of those mistakes. To believe and repent takes both faith and courage.

When Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw two fishermen, Simon and Andrew, and offered them an invitation, “Come follow me, and I’ll teach you how to fish for people” (Mark 1:17 CEB). The difficulty with translating this verse from Greek into English is that one way gives us a task, while another way gives us an identity. If Jesus teaches us how to fish for people, that’s a task. Tasks are important. Tasks get things done. But the problem with tasks is that they have a beginning and an end. When we’re done with the task of fishing, we can move on to other tasks.

But a better translation takes into account the Greek verb that means to be or become. Jesus tells Simon and Andrew, “Come follow me, and I’ll prepare you to become fishers for people” (my translation). If Jesus prepares us to become fishers, that’s an identity. That promises a lifetime of fishing. One of my buddies in Churubusco, Indiana is a fisher. Fishers are always fishing. Every time my friend has the chance to be on the water fishing, he’s going to be on the water fishing.

Now, the difference between fishing and becoming fishers might not seem like a big deal until we realize that Jesus is talking about discipleship—following him. Is discipleship a task, as in something we do, or is it an identity, as in something we become, something we are? I think it’s a matter of our identity. Following Jesus prepares us to become fishers for people. It prepares us to love the way Jesus loved, to accept people as Jesus accepted people, to serve as Jesus served, to sacrifice for others as Jesus sacrificed for others.

Sometimes following Jesus requires us to move in new and unexpected directions. My bachelor of science degree is in Environmental and Hazardous Materials Management with an emphasis in Environmental Policy and Compliance. My call to ordained ministry changed the course of my life. Now, I’m a pastor. Another call, my call to write, got me learning how to become an author. Now, I can’t stop writing books. And pursuing that call has opened a whole new world for me. (The friend I talked with on the phone who’s trying to get off the drugs and alcohol, I never would have met him if I weren’t pursuing my call to write).

Simon, Andrew, James, and John dropped what they were doing and followed Jesus. We’re told that James and John left their father, Zebedee in the boat with the nets and the hired men, and followed Jesus who prepared them to become fishers for people. Then, the disciples prepared others to become fishers for people.

Jesus proclaimed God’s good news that the kingdom of God has come. We’re invited to follow Jesus, to take on new identities, to live our lives in new directions. Jesus calls us to change our minds, change our hearts, change our purpose, and believe that God loves us—that God loves all people—so much that God became a human being to announce the good news in person.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Rev. Christopher Millay

Samuel and Eli | 2nd after Epiphany

1 Samuel 3:1-20

Now the boy Samuel was serving the LORD under Eli. The LORD’s word was rare at that time, and visions weren’t widely known. 2 One day Eli, whose eyes had grown so weak he was unable to see, was lying down in his room. 3 God’s lamp hadn’t gone out yet, and Samuel was lying down in the LORD’s temple, where God’s chest was.

4 The LORD called to Samuel. “I’m here,” he said.

5 Samuel hurried to Eli and said, “I’m here. You called me?”

“I didn’t call you,” Eli replied. “Go lie down.” So he did.

6 Again the LORD called Samuel, so Samuel got up, went to Eli, and said, “I’m here. You called me?”

“I didn’t call, my son,” Eli replied. “Go and lie down.”

7 (Now Samuel didn’t yet know the LORD, and the LORD’s word hadn’t yet been revealed to him.)

8 A third time the LORD called Samuel. He got up, went to Eli, and said, “I’m here. You called me?”

Then Eli realized that it was the LORD who was calling the boy. 9 So Eli said to Samuel, “Go and lie down. If he calls you, say, ‘Speak, LORD. Your servant is listening.'” So Samuel went and lay down where he’d been.

10 Then the LORD came and stood there, calling just as before, “Samuel, Samuel!”

Samuel said, “Speak. Your servant is listening.”

11 The LORD said to Samuel, “I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of all who hear it tingle! 12 On that day, I will bring to pass against Eli everything I said about his household– every last bit of it! 13 I told him that I would punish his family forever because of the wrongdoing he knew about– how his sons were cursing God, but he wouldn’t stop them. 14 Because of that I swore about Eli’s household that his family’s wrongdoing will never be reconciled by sacrifice or by offering.”

15 Samuel lay there until morning, then opened the doors of the LORD’s house. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. 16 But Eli called Samuel, saying: “Samuel, my son!”

“I’m here,” Samuel said.

17 “What did he say to you?” Eli asked. “Don’t hide anything from me. May God deal harshly with you and worse still if you hide from me a single word from everything he said to you.” 18 So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him.

“He is the LORD, ” Eli said. “He will do as he pleases.”

19 So Samuel grew up, and the LORD was with him, not allowing any of his words to fail.
20 All Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was trustworthy as the LORD’s prophet. (CEB)

Samuel and Eli

Have you ever noticed how many call stories there are in the Bible? I think these call stories are records of some of the most powerful moments in human history. They’re really amazing stories because the infinite God of creation calls seemingly insignificant human beings to do God’s will. Many of these call stories are theophany events: moments where God reveals God’s self in some powerful and unusual way.

In Exodus 3, Moses was called in the great theophany of the burning bush. In Isaiah 6, Isaiah was given a vision of God seated on the throne in majesty and glory. In Luke 1, Mary, the mother of Jesus, experienced the visitation of the Angel of the Lord. In Acts of the Apostles 9, Paul was blinded by a heavenly light and saw the risen Lord Jesus appear to him. These are all powerful call stories.

And yet I find this—perhaps less impressive—call story of the boy Samuel to be closer to my heart than any of the others. That’s because there are some similarities between it and my own call story, but also because there appears to be a similarity between it and the state of the world today. In the very first verse of 1 Samuel 3, something is mentioned that I think many Christians find relatable. We’re told, The LORD’s word was rare at that time, and visions weren’t widely known.” (1 Samuel 3:1b CEB).

And as if to put an exclamation point on this scarcity of the Lord’s word and lack of visions, we’re given this example of the boy Samuel who hears a voice calling his name. But, instead of recognizing the voice for whose it was, Samuel thinks it is Eli. He runs to him saying, “I’m here. You called me?”

This happens twice before we’re told as a side note, “Now Samuel didn’t yet know the LORD, and the LORD’s word hadn’t yet been revealed to him” (1 Samuel 3:7 CEB). And poor old Eli didn’t get what was going on either. All he knew was that this kid kept waking him up.

It isn’t until the third time that the Lord calls Samuel, and Samuel mistakenly goes to Eli yet again, that Eli perceives that the Lord is calling Samuel, so he tells Samuel what to say, “Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.” So, on the fourth try, the Lord finally gets Samuel to listen to the word of the Lord. As we find out by the end of the chapter (verse 21, which the lectionary left out), “The LORD continued to appear at Shiloh because the LORD revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh through the LORD’s own word” (1 Sam. 3:21 CEB). So the drought and scarcity of the word of the Lord ended to some degree, because Samuel became a reliable source for the hearing of God’s word.

As I said, many Christians would probably agree that the word of the Lord is rare in these days; visions are not widely known. But I don’t know that I would agree with that take. If we look closely at what was going on in Samuel’s day, we discover that things were not as they should have been with Israel’s religious life. Eli’s sons were cursing God and doing all kinds of wrong things while they were serving as priests. Eli knew about it, and yet did nothing to stop the evil they were doing.

You see, I think the word of the Lord was probably as active as ever, but people simply weren’t able to hear because they weren’t listening. How can we hear the word of the Lord if we aren’t even listening? How can we hear when the din of the world around us so easily drowns out the voice of God? If you remember from the story of Elijah, God didn’t speak in the fire, the earthquake, or the wind. God spoke in the sound of sheer silence (c.f. 1 Kings 19:12).

When it comes to hearing the word of the Lord, I bet we all have a bit of a learning curve just like Samuel had. When Samuel heard this voice for the first time, he didn’t recognize it for what it was. But we’re told that, “So Samuel grew up, and the LORD was with him, not allowing any of his words to fail” (1 Sam. 3:19 CEB). Samuel didn’t follow after the ways of Eli’s corrupt sons, he listened ever more closely for the voice of the Lord so that he could hear when the Lord spoke.

I know I’ve mentioned my call to ministry before, but call is important in the life of the church, so I’m going to tell it again. My call began when I was serving as an acolyte at Central United Methodist Church in Evansville. There were moments when I sat in the front pew in my acolyte robe as my pastor preached and I heard God speak to me. I heard God say that I would do what my pastor was doing. But at the time, I didn’t understand what this voice was. All I knew was that such thoughts scared the heck out of me because I’m an introvert and there was no way on God’s green earth I was ever going to stand up in front of people and talk. I was just a boy, and I didn’t recognize the word of the Lord even as that voice spoke to me.

That voice came and went over the years until I was in college. It was almost mid-February in 1996 when the voice of the Lord came again with a vigor and an intensity I’d never before experienced. It was absolutely inescapable—almost to the point of being annoying. At first, I wasn’t sure what was going on. I recognized it as the same voice, the same feeling, the same sense of call to ministry that I’d experienced as a boy sitting in the front pew at church, and I just hoped it would go away as it had each time before.

But I also tried to understand what it was telling me. I finally recognized it as the voice of God calling me to ministry on St. Valentine’s Day while I was trying to study chemistry. I knew that God was calling me to ministry. And, for a few seconds, I know that I registered my protest, I tried to push back. I thought, there’s no way you could want me to do this, I can’t talk in front of other people!

But then God argued back with the overwhelming weight and intensity of that voice, and I can’t even quote what God said in that moment but it was an audible declaration—I heard it—and all I could do was push my chemistry book back, throw my pencil aside and—with, I admit, some degree of frustration because of the fact that I couldn’t seem to change God’s mind about it—say out loud, “All right, God, I’ll do it!” And once those words were nearly shouted from my lips, I felt a profound sense of peace.

Sometimes I wonder if the voice of the Lord is rare in these days, or if we just need to learn how to listen. That was my call to ordained ministry, and it was a profound event. But not all calls to ministry are calls to ordination or preaching. Long before I was called to ordained ministry I was called to the ministry of all Christians, which is also called the Priesthood of all believers, through my baptism. When I think about it, that might have been an even more profound moment in my life, though I don’t remember it at all.

You see, it was at my baptism that the Lord took me and, when I was nothing more than an infant, filled me with the grace of God, mysteriously incorporated me into the body of Christ, united me with Christ in his death and resurrection, marked me as God’s own with the seal of the Holy Spirit, placed me in a covenant relationship with God, and forgave me of my sin.

We United Methodists believe firmly, along with the ancient position of the church, that baptism is something that God does, not something that we do by choosing to be baptized, and not something the pastor does to us by applying the water to us. Baptism is an act of God through the church and it’s a means of grace where the one being baptized receives the grace of God.

That’s why I think my baptism was a more profound moment in my life than my call to ordination. Without my parents placing me in the care of the church through my baptism as an infant—much as Hannah placed her son, Samuel, in the care of the house of the Lord at Shiloh right after he was weaned—how would these later calls have taken place? How would my call to ordination have come without the faith of my parents first offering me to Christ in the mystery of holy baptism? How would Samuel’s call as a prophet have come without his mother’s offering her son as a nazirite to God?

Baptism is both a call to ministry and a call to a new and different kind of life in Christ. Every baptized person has been called by God to the ministry of all Christians. Our Book of Discipline says, “Very early in its history, the church came to understand that all of its members were commissioned in baptism to ministries of love, justice, and service…all who follow Jesus have a share in the ministry of Jesus, who came not to be served, but to serve.” That’s a call! We who follow Jesus Christ are called by God to move beyond ourselves and carry the Great Commission into the larger world around us.

We’re called by God, but sometimes we still find the word of the Lord difficult to hear. If we don’t feel particularly called by God to anything, then maybe we need to listen better. We live in a multitasking world of short attention-spans. When we have conversations with people, we’re usually doing something else, too. Talking on the phone while flipping through TV channels, talking to a coworker while checking our e-mail, talking to our kids while working on a project.

We live in a time and place where we’re losing the art of listening. When was the last time we focused solely on the person we were talking to without pulling a smart phone from our purse or pocket? (I’ve seen elderly people eat together at restaurants while each were on their smart phones, so it’s not just a young-people thing). When was the last time we focused solely on what God is trying to say to us?

This story of Samuel’s call can serve as our invitation to hear again and to recognize again the call of God upon our lives. We are called by God to ministries of love and service. The word of the Lord might not be so rare in these days as we think. We simply need to be better listeners to what the Lord is saying.

Where is God calling you?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

 

Promise | 4th Advent

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16

1 When the king was settled in his palace, and the LORD had given him rest from all his surrounding enemies, 2 the king said to the prophet Nathan, “Look! I’m living in a cedar palace, but God’s chest is housed in a tent!”

3 Nathan said to the king, “Go ahead and do whatever you are thinking, because the LORD is with you.”

4 But that very night the LORD’s word came to Nathan: 5 Go to my servant David and tell him: This is what the LORD says: You are not the one to build the temple for me to live in. 6 In fact, I haven’t lived in a temple from the day I brought Israel out of Egypt until now. Instead, I have been traveling around in a tent and in a dwelling. 7 Throughout my traveling around with the Israelites, did I ever ask any of Israel’s tribal leaders I appointed to shepherd my people: Why haven’t you built me a cedar temple?

8 So then, say this to my servant David: This is what the LORD of heavenly forces says: I took you from the pasture, from following the flock, to be leader over my people Israel. 9 I’ve been with you wherever you’ve gone, and I’ve eliminated all your enemies before you. Now I will make your name great– like the name of the greatest people on earth. 10 I’m going to provide a place for my people Israel, and plant them so that they may live there and no longer be disturbed. Cruel people will no longer trouble them, as they had been earlier, 11 when I appointed leaders over my people Israel. And I will give you rest from all your enemies.

And the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make a dynasty for you.

16 Your dynasty and your kingdom will be secured forever before me. Your throne will be established forever. (CEB)

Promise

Another text that comes to mind when I read this is Isaiah 55: “My plans aren’t your plans, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. Just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my plans than your plans.” (8-9 CEB).

These words from the prophet Isaiah remind us that God is always more steps ahead of us than we’d care to admit. We might have our own agendas, but God has an agenda, too, and it’s not always the same as ours. We shouldn’t be surprised to discover that our agendas—no matter how honorable or righteous our intentions—can stand in contradiction to God’s own. In our text from 2 Samuel, King David has an idea. On the surface, it sounds honorable enough. Now that David is all settled, he wants to build God a house. He consults the prophet, Nathan, who tells him it’s a good idea and he should go ahead.

Yet, right there, the text leaves us with all kinds of questions. We know David’s story, and we know enough about people and human nature that we should be a little suspicious. Throughout history, people in power have used religion to push their own agenda. Over the past several years, we’ve watched in horror as some groups of people have pursued what they call righteousness through evil actions. So, while it appears that David wants to honor God, the statement leaves us wondering. (At least, it leaves me wondering). Might the king also want to build a house for God as a way to honor himself? After all, he’d be forever known as the one who built such a house. As long as it stood, it would be tied to his memory: an enduring memorial to King David of Israel.

And, why does David consult Nathan? Is it because he really wants to know what the prophet has to say, or is it because he wants a religious blessing for his pet political project? Nathan’s initial answer is a little odd, too. He gives David the blessing that the king wanted to hear without even attempting to consult the Lord about it. What we don’t know is whether this is Nathan’s genuine conviction or if he’s bowing to the will of the king like a good brown-nosing lap-dog. To Nathan’s credit, when God speaks to him—though he didn’t bother seeking the Lord’s counsel on the matter—he has enough courage to deliver the message to the king, even though it’s not a message the king will like.

It begs the question, how could both David and Nathan have misjudged God? They were both people of faith. They both knew Israel’s story. They’d lived parts of it. Yet, despite this, they both got God’s designs wrong. Everyone likes to think that God is on their side. But we, like David and Nathan, are prone to misjudging God’s character and purposes.

We should, perhaps, be a little hesitant to link God’s purposes with our own political agendas, like David, or our religious agendas, like Nathan. That doesn’t mean we should never act. But it means that, while we act in good faith, we keep an open heart and mind to the movements of a God whose ways are not our ways, and whose thoughts are not our thoughts.

I tend to wonder where and how God is moving now. And, I wonder in what ways our human agendas and aspirations, however noble they might look, might be hindering the things God wants to do. One thing I think we should always expect from God is the unexpected. Another thing we can expect is that, if we do manage to get in the way, God will work around us. At the same time, God is good enough to post WRONG WAY signs on our path, extend forgiveness, mercy and grace, and invite us to come along with God again.

That’s what happens in this story about David. God’s response to David comes as a warning. The first oracle reminds David about God’s character and freedom. God neither needs nor desires a permanent dwelling, as if God could be contained. “You are not the one to build the temple for me to live in. In fact, I haven’t lived in a temple from the day I brought Israel out of Egypt until now. Instead, I have been traveling around in a tent and in a dwelling. Throughout my traveling around with the Israelites, did I ever ask any of Israel’s tribal leaders I appointed to shepherd my people: Why haven’t you built me a cedar temple?” (2 Sam. 7:5c-7 CEB).

One of the verbs used in verses 6 and 7 is (הָלַךְ) halak which is move, travel, walk. The Lord has always been a God on the move. Wherever God’s people were located, that’s were God could be found. Abram was at Haran when God told him to set out for the land God would show him. God didn’t wait for Abram to get to Canaan, God sought Abram out in another land. That verb, halak, is one of self-determination. God chooses where God will go, no one chooses for God. The Lord’s message to David is that God is the one who did the walking and moving about in the wilderness. God says, I brought…, I have been traveling…, my traveling….

The same verb is found in Genesis 3:8 where God walked through the Garden of Eden looking for Adam and Eve who had hidden themselves. God goes where God wills, and God walks where we are. One of the problems with David’s decision to build a temple is that David is choosing for God. David is attempting to take away God’s self-determination, God’s ability to walk where God chooses to walk. David’s trying to contain God in one place: and since David is choosing the place, it becomes a place which David can control. But how do you contain the uncontainable and control what can’t be controlled? God tells David, I don’t need your house.

That leads to the question God asks in verse 7, Throughout my traveling around with the Israelites, did I ever ask any of Israel’s tribal leaders I appointed to shepherd my people: Why haven’t you built me a cedar temple?” (CEB). Here, the king is reminded that God was with Israel long before David lived. If God didn’t need Moses, or Aaron, or Miriam, or Joshua, or Caleb, or Deborah to build a permanent temple as a dwelling, then God doesn’t need David to do it either. If God wants someone to build a temple, God will be the initiator of that project.

This part of the warning reminds David that, though he is king of Israel, he’s still a little human being who needs to remember his place in God’s kingdom. God will not be controlled. God will not be domesticated. God will not be contained. God’s sovereignty and self-determination will not be infringed upon by a mere human. When God decides to have a temple built, it’ll be God’s choice, not David’s.

The second oracle changes significantly in tone. Instead of, “This is what the Lord says” (1 Samuel 7:5 CEB), it changes to “This is what the Lord of heavenly forces says” (1 Samuel 7:8 CEB). Instead of addressing David intimately, God speaks as one who holds the power of heaven’s armies. David gets an earful of a reminder about where he came from and how he got where he is now. God made David king. God took David from the pasture and following the flock. God has been with David wherever he has gone. God chose to walk with David and set him up as king over Israel. God is the one who gave David victory over his enemies and who settled David in his house. It’s God who will make David’s name great.

What’s more, God reminds David that it isn’t only him whom God favors, but all of Israel. The Lord says, “I’m going to provide a place for my people Israel, and plant them so that they may live there and no longer be disturbed. Cruel people will no longer trouble them, as they had been earlier, when I appointed leaders over my people Israel” (2 Samuel 7:10-11 CEB). Then, God turns the tables completely. Instead of David building God a house, God will make David a house—a dynasty—that will last forever. Sometimes we forget that God has plans, too. God is way ahead of us in the planning stages and, more often than not, God’s plans surprise us.

Something else we should note about the books of First and Second Samuel themselves, is that the texts weren’t compiled during the days of David and Nathan. They were compiled during the years of exile in Babylon when there was no king of David’s line settled anywhere resting from their enemies. There was no temple; it had already been destroyed. It would have been important for the people living in that exile to hear that God might not be confined to the ruins of a building located in Jerusalem. That was actually a prominent theme of Ezekiel, whose visions described God moving about in a chariot with omnidirectional wheels rising up from Jerusalem and moving across the earth. The claim that God’s presence cannot be contained opens the possibility that God is there with the exiles, too.

Think about it this way: The exile to Babylon called God’s power into question. If God couldn’t prevent something as horrible as the exile from happening, then maybe God didn’t have a whole lot of power after all. Yet, the claim that God’s covenant is forever opens the possibility that God’s promises would continue after the exile ended. The exile also made people wonder if God really cared about them. It made them wonder if God had heartlessly turned against them. (We tend to think that way, too, when tragedy happens). But this story’s claim that grace was God’s answer to David’s arrogance—that grace is God’s answer to all human arrogance—suggests that God will always act in a way that redeems and saves.

Here, a people who were in the hell of exile, sought alternative answers to their questions about God’s power and love. When the evidence before them suggested that they might as well give up on God, they began to look at the world in a different way. Instead of forcing the world—or God—to conform to their already-made answers about what God should be doing and how God should have acted, they opened themselves to new ways of understanding how God works in the world, and how God’s love is made known.

As we approach Christmas Day, I want to leave us with a few questions:

What are our assumptions about what is pleasing to God, and how might God be nudging the church to move in new and unthought-of directions?

What are the ways that we—like David—seek to enshrine and confine God?

How receptive are we to the idea that God acts in ways that catch us by surprise?

This holy day we’ll celebrate tonight and tomorrow is just such a surprise. God was born as a human being to be Emmanuel—God With Us—which was, I might add, a most unexpected move on God’s part. The mother of God was a peasant woman in a backwater town in a backwater region of a mighty empire. Yet, this birth moved the whole world in a new direction.

I might add as a final note that one of the most significant verses of the New Testament, John 1:14, says, “The Word became flesh and made his home among us” (John 1:14a CEB). A better translation might say, “The Word became flesh and tabernacled” or “tented, among us.” It’s a reference to the tent in which God traveled with Israel long ago. Jesus Christ became the new tent in which God moves, walks, and travels among us. It’s a reminder that when God came to be Emmanuel, it wasn’t to sit idly in a permanent home or human kingdom. Jesus told us that “Foxes have dens, and the birds in the sky have nests, but the Human One has no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20 & Luke 9:58 CEB).

God came to walk with us. God came to move among us and, importantly, to get us moving in ways we might not have imagined.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

Good News | 3rd Advent

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

1 The LORD God’s spirit is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim release for captives, and liberation for prisoners, 2 to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and a day of vindication for our God, to comfort all who mourn, 3 to provide for Zion’s mourners, to give them a crown in place of ashes, oil of joy in place of mourning, a mantle of praise in place of discouragement. They will be called Oaks of Righteousness, planted by the LORD to glorify himself. 4 They will rebuild the ancient ruins; they will restore formerly deserted places; they will renew ruined cities, places deserted in generations past.

8 I, the LORD, love justice; I hate robbery and dishonesty. I will faithfully give them their wage, and make with them an enduring covenant. 9 Their offspring will be known among the nations, and their descendants among the peoples. All who see them will recognize that they are a people blessed by the LORD.

10 I surely rejoice in the LORD; my heart is joyful because of my God, because he has clothed me with clothes of victory, wrapped me in a robe of righteousness like a bridegroom in a priestly crown, and like a bride adorned in jewelry. 11 As the earth puts out its growth, and as a garden grows its seeds, so the LORD God will grow righteousness and praise before all the nations. (CEB)

Good News

 These verses from Isaiah express themes of mission, righteousness, and salvation. Of course, my first questions are about what those words mean and how we, as the church, are to apply them. Sometimes, the definitions we assume don’t quite jive with what the Scriptures say. We like to narrow things, pare them down to Cliff’s Notes, so we can get the gist without having to dig deep or think too much. Honestly, it’s easier that way. It’s simpler not to have to wrestle with hard truths. If we can get the basics figured out, then we can assume we’re all set.

The problem with this kind of faith—I’ll call it lazy faith—is that we miss out on the life-giving richness the Scriptures offer to us, and the way it can shape and reshape our lives and our community.

Let’s take the idea of salvation as an example. What is salvation? Most people think it’s getting into heaven. It’s about making the cut. I think most of us are fairly comfortable with our level of commitment and aren’t too concerned about not making it in to heaven. I mean, if there’s any question on judgment day, we’ll just plead “Jesus” and God will let us in.

Yet, we conveniently overlook the words of Jesus in Matthew 7, “A good tree can’t produce bad fruit. And a rotten tree can’t produce good fruit. Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. Therefore, you will know them by their fruit. Not everybody who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will get into the kingdom of heaven. Only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven will enter. On the Judgment Day, many people will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name and expel demons in your name and do lots of miracles in your name?’ Then I’ll tell them, ‘I’ve never known you. Get away from me, you people who do wrong,’” (7:18-23 CEB), and Luke 6:46, where Jesus asks a simple question, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and don’t do what I say?” (CEB).

There is, undoubtedly, an ethical component to salvation. That ethical component is found throughout the Scriptures. Every place where judgment is mentioned in the New Testament, we’re told that we’ll be judged according to what we’ve done, said, or failed to do. Not once do the Scriptures say that we’ll be judged according to what we believed. There is a tension between belief and action. Our belief in God had better inform our behavior and, more importantly, result in behavior that’s consistent with God’s understanding of right and wrong.

Revelation 14:13 tells us that our “deeds follow” us when we die. Yet, the prevailing notion among Protestant Christians since Martin Luther is that works, deeds, actions, words we speak—however we may want to describe the ethics of how we live—don’t have any bearing on whether we’re saved or not. That’s why Luther wanted to throw the book of James out of the Bible. Luther preached salvation by faith alone. But the only place the phrase “faith alone” is found in the entire Bible is James 2:24, where James tells us, “So you see that a person is shown to be righteous through faithful actions and not through faith alone,” (CEB). One of my professors used to say, “Faith alone and fifty-cents will get you a cup of coffee in the coffee shop of you-know-where.”

I think the price of coffee has gone up a bit since then.

It is God’s grace that saves us—God’s extension of love, mercy, and forgiveness to us, God’s incredible desire to be with us—but how we live, our ethics, matter to God. To think otherwise is to ignore what God tells us over and again. Verse 8 of our text tells us that God loves justice and hates robbery and dishonesty. What God loves and despises about our behavior matters.

To tack in another direction, the word salvation is something that’s difficult to nail down. It’s one of those churchy-religious words that we use but don’t quite get. We struggle with what it means. It may be helpful to know that saved also means healed. The forms of the Greek word σώζω (sodzo) which are often translated in our Bibles as “save” and “saved” are, in different places, also translated as “heal” and “healed.” The Greek word for salvation, σωτηρία (soteria), can mean deliverance or preservation from impending physical death, as well as salvation in the sense of a mystical future reality (which is that whole Heaven and Hell thing).

So, the essence of salvation, or being saved, is healing. The disease from which we are healed, so to speak, is sin and sinfulness: our penchant for choosing and doing things God doesn’t like. Salvation means that our “bent to sinning,” as Charles Wesley called it (c.f. Love Divine, All Loves Excelling) will be healed because of what God has done—and is doing—for us. While salvation is ultimately something God accomplishes, and wants to accomplish for us, we have a part to play. That’s why Paul told us to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling (c.f. Philippians 2:12).

Another aspect of salvation that we Christians often overlook is that it’s meant to be, in part, a quality of life that we experience here, now, which reflects God’s desires for our community. In Isaiah 61, salvation is good news. It’s justice instead of oppression, healing of the brokenhearted, liberty for the captives, release of the prisoners, and a proclamation of the year of the Lord’s favor and vindication. It’s comfort and providence for those who mourn. Garlands instead of ashes. Praise instead of discouragement.

This all points to community as God desires. The year of the Lord’s favor is a reference to the year of Jubilee in Leviticus 25, which was every fiftieth year. It’s when slaves and indentured servants were set free. Property sold had to be returned to the ancestral owners, and everyone had to return home to their family property. It was supposed to be a complete reset of the Israelite economy, and it was meant to prevent the rich from exploiting the poor in ways that led to injustice and disparity. The word liberty here means more than freedom. In the context of Jubilee in Leviticus 25, it’s a complete socioeconomic reconfiguration. It was God’s reset button on the kind of wealth accumulation that led to oppression and injustice in Israelite society which led to a destruction of God-intended community.

Salvation is described as a restored city and an abundant garden. This isn’t a vision of pie in the sky after we die. While Christian theology does speak of a future reality of salvation, the Christian community is supposed to look like a reflection of that future reality in the present. We’re invited to participate in salvation-style living right now. Jubilee is what Jesus came to proclaim. That was his mission, and it’s the mission of those who follow him.

Remember when Jesus visited his hometown synagogue in Nazareth? “The synagogue assistant gave him the scroll from the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him. He began to explain to them, ‘Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it,’” (Luke 4:17-21 CEB).

Jesus came to make every year a year of the Lord’s favor. His good news is that we can live out salvation even in a world that’s still broken. We can. And we do it by living our mission in our community.

That brings us to another term we need to re-examine. What is mission? First, it might help to dispel a common incorrect understanding of mission. Mission isn’t only something that goes out from the church, whether it’s money or people sent as missionaries for the sake of the poor, oppressed, brokenhearted, captives, and prisoners. Mission is also something that defines the church, in that we exist for the sake of the poor, oppressed, brokenhearted, captives, and prisoners.

Mission isn’t just what we do, it’s who we are. It’s our identity. Throughout the Scriptures, God tells us over and over that God is deeply concerned for the least, the poor, the oppressed, the broken, the captive, the weak. Shouldn’t we reflect that concern, too? The church exists for mission. Church is not an end unto itself. If we think we’re here only for ourselves and what we can take away from the sermon to get us through the week, we’re severely missing the point of what Jesus came to do. We aren’t here to maintain a building, or run programs, or fellowship with like-minded individuals. We’re here to be the mission of the anointed one—the Messiah. Our building, our programs, and our fellowship should serve and support that mission.

But, when Christians only exist as people who are divided, who are judgmental, who fight amongst ourselves, who exclude others, we’ll fail to be the mission of Jesus Christ no matter how much money we throw at ministries, and no matter how many missionaries we send.

We’re here to live as Jesus Christ lived. Which means we’re here “to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim release for captives, and liberation for prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and a day of vindication for our God, to comfort all who mourn,” (Isaiah 61:1-2 CEB). The church exists so that we can be the kind of missional force that transforms the world here and now by being a reflection of the Kingdom of God that’s coming.

When we do that, when we are that, the world will take notice. And the result will be joy. Not some superficial happiness, but deep and abiding joy; like wedding-day level stuff with brides and grooms dressed and ready. Our mission is righteousness. When our community faithfully lives as the mission of God, God causes transformation to happen all over the place. When mission is authentically lived, this stuff spreads. Good news is worth sharing and, when others see it, they know it’s worth emulating.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher